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Tuesday, March 4, 2014

RIDING THE MEMOIR WAVE: Drinking the Rain, Between Urban and Wild, Circling Back Home, Yellowstone Has Teeth, A Bushel's Worth, and More

Nine years ago my New York agent circulated to four different publishing houses a 20-page memoir proposal for Sweetwater: A Mountain Cabin, a Life Unfolding, still a work-in-progress.  Despite accolades for my first memoir, three of the houses passed on the project with cordial letters that addressed its strengths and shortcomings.  The fourth pass came from the executive editor at Viking Penguin. 

“This reminded me of a book I published..." wrote the editor, "Drinking the Rain by Alix Kates Shulman, the story of a summer she spent alone at a cabin in Maine as she turned fifty and was experiencing midlife and marriage crises.  I love that book… Shulman is an amazing writer, and I’m afraid for me Lambert’s writing did not hold up in comparison…”  Photo of Shulman by Marion Ettlinger.

I was devastated.  Once I picked myself up off the floor (which took days), I ordered a copy of Drinking the Rain, flipped through the pages when it arrived, thought of the rain-parched landscape of the West, promptly closed the book and shelved it—stuffed it, actually, wedging it between two other volumes.

During the next nine years, I rewrote the proposal—moving blocks of text around, pulling different passages from the pages of my journals, replacing and reorganizing.  But the actual writing that hadn’t “held up” to Shulman’s?  The lofty lines that I’d strung together like a ladder, hoping to fool the reader into thinking I’d climbed to the top of some wise vantage point?  Those lines stayed.  I was still fooling myself.  I was rearranging the project, but not re-envisioning it.

I floundered, like the old man in John Steinbeck’s story Pastures of Heaven looking down at the valley where he’d lived his life, beating his hands helplessly against his hips.  “If I could go down there and live down there for a little while—why, I’d think over all the things that ever happened to me, and maybe I could make something out of them, something all in one piece that had a meaning, instead of all these trailing ends.”

Tangled in hundreds of pages of trailing ends, lost in the emotional valley where I’d buried my marriage, I was unable to sift those experiences, filter out the dredge, and pour what remained into a new, streamlined vessel.

Two weeks ago, I pulled Drinking the Rain from its tightly wedged place on the bookshelf and once again opened the cover, stepping away from my bruised ego and into the beauty of Shulman’s prose.  I drank it all in.  Read.  Savored.  Studied.  Made notes in the margins and on the endpapers.  Analyzed her graceful shifts from front story to back story, from long walks along seaweed-strewn shores where she harvested each night’s meal, to brief reflective passages with shining epiphanies small enough to stuff in my pocket and take home.  "A new world," she writes, "close as my body and old as the sea, has opened up to me ... I soon discover I can no longer eat without grace on my lips."

I studied the memoir’s three-section structure: The Island. The Mainland. The World.  How exquisitely, deceptively simple!  Elegant and craft-driven.  All the carefully selected, trailing ends neatly braided into one strong rope—a lifeline for the reader.

Drinking the Rain (published in 1995) now sits on my desk next to four, much newer memoirs, all published in 2013, all written by women, all “slice of life” stories rising from some cataclysmic shift in each of their lives.  

In the memoir Between Urban and Wild: Reflections from Colorado, Andrea Jones writes about when she and her husband left the foothills outside of Boulder “to build a new home on a grassy wrinkle in central Colorado, just north of a butte named Cap Rock Ridge.”  More remote than the cabin in Maine where Shulman retreated, Jones hones her vision and finds, like Shulman did, the entire world mirrored in the microcosm just outside her door.

In Circling Back Home: A Plainswoman’s Journey, Darcy Lipp-Acord delves deeply into the daily tasks of rural living, looking at her life through the generational lens of family history, examining it under the harsh light of modern values, weighing each motherly and wifely act on a scale that balances loss and blessing.  Lying in the hospital about to give birth to a son seven weeks prematurely, she thinks of the miscarriage she suffered five years earlier, of the five babies her own mother lost.  Her plainswoman lifestyle seems anachronistic, yet the threads of her life tie her to an ageless tapestry.

In Yellowstone Has Teeth (a memoir of living year-round in the world’s first national park), Marjane Ambler takes the reader inside a nine-year slice-of-life, from 1984 to 1993, when she and her husband lived in the middle of 2.2 million acres, along with a handful of other brave souls who thought nothing of snowmobiling for two days to retrieve their mail.  When the devastating fire of 1988 hit Yellowstone, huge cumulus clouds boiled over Two Ocean Plateau, “the clouds stained red from the fires far below, like cauliflower boiled in blood.”  Ambler's is a book about community, painted with brush strokes wide enough to cover the immense landscape she called home, yet dotted with detail so painstakingly rendered you can almost hear the snorts of the 2000-pound bison that travel the same winter trails.

In some ways, Kayann Short’s book, A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography, synthesizes many of these same themes—ancestral stories, living off the land, recasting old agricultural patterns into new, more sustainable grooves.  A Bushel’s Worth tells the story of Stonebridge, an organic community-supported farm in the Rocky Mountain foothills.  “A farm may be as close to wilderness as some people ever get, but it’s not wild.  Rather, it’s a place where the natural and human worlds must live as harmoniously as we can manage, or perhaps as we can imagine…”

Which is exactly what Alix Kates Shulman did during those secluded months living in her seaside cabin in Maine—she discovered, and rediscovered each time she returned to the cabin, the joy of a simple, harmonious life.   

Ah, if only writing about such a life were as easy as living it. If only we could find the bare bones of our stories as readily as we gather the bare bones of the animals we find along the trail.  If only we could return to that cabin in the woods, sip the sweet water that pools beneath the aspen trees, and drink in the rain, knowing what we know now.   

Photos to the right are of cabin where Page spent a month alone in the Big Horn Mountains, the setting for her next memoir.

NOTE: The deadline for 1200-word submissions to the Stories On Stage Memoir Contest is March 12, 2014.